Hype Cycles

26 April 2015

“If you start to feel sick just take it off and you’ll be fine in a minute.”

These words – uttered by the person operating a computer, oversized goggles and corresponding tangle of wires – are just one of the many reasons why the latest wave of virtual reality is, with depressing inevitability, destined for failure.

If you haven’t used an Oculus Rift, or one of its many similar competitors , it’s a surprisingly unimpressive experience for something with so much hype. The screen is quite low resolution – you can easily see the pixels – and the experience is never that convincing. You are never going to be fooled into thinking you’re somewhere else – in fact, it’s remarkably similar to the initial wave of VR back in the 90s.

The technology is bound to get better – it always does – but the real problem with VR is simple: it’s utterly antisocial. While you are using one, you are blotting out the world and everyone else within it. Someone this week told me that Oculus’s plan was to get them in every living room by Christmas, at a mass market price point, but just think about that for a second: the ideal scenario for the people that are making these devices is a family sitting around on Christmas morning, not talking or interacting with each other, with goggles on their heads.

All of these points, of course, are obvious I’d hope. But yet, there is a deafening, swirling buzz around the technology, with billions upon billions of dollars being poured into it. But then hype and buzz is – somewhat counterintuitively – only connected to the reality of the situation by a thin, tenuous thread. What’s interesting is that this is in no way just a phenomenon in the world of tech – it’s precisely the same in music.

Oculus Rift is has more in common with James Bay then you might think.

The hype cycles across the different fields mirror each other, and tell us a little bit about how we as a social species flock together. People need reassurance, and they also need to be part of a social group that’s linked together by shared viewpoints. And, without getting too Hipster Runoff about it, the need to be relevant, especially in music and tech, is key. If you know something – whether that’s some cool new band or some cutting edge app – and the person next to you doesn’t, that gives you a small element of superiority.

Everyone you know is trying to be better then everyone you know.

They frantically scour Hype Machine/Hacker News (delete as appropriate) to find whatever is hot, whatever is bubbling just below the surface. This knowledge is powerless without anyone knowing that you know it though, so you have to broadcast it:

“Hey I saw this great band at the Sebright Arms last night.”

“Are you on Flotsm yet? It’s pretty interesting – still in beta though, think you need an invite to get an account.”

“I know something you don’t know”

But no one stops to actually think about whether any of this is actually any good. The quality is irrelevant, it is the knowledge itself that has the social importance. It gets passed on, around the real world social networks of interconnected people, each time growing in power through repetition – the more people that know it, the more true it is. We are also terrible at remembering how much hype there was around abject failures – the Segway, or Joe Lean & the Jing Jang Jong, for example. Our collective critical thinking has glasses tinted rose.

It strikes me that digital music, sitting at the intersection of two circles of hype, is particularly prone to this kind of excessive hyperbole. So many departments, agencies and people justifying their existence by creating campaigns that have little or no substance and relevance to the fans they are purporting to be targeted at, but get picked up by the media because they make a good headline. Ironically, the press coverage does have some positive affect for a campaign, but most of the time it’s the tail wagging the dog to such an extent that the dog may even not exist at all (which is a little bit metaphysical but you get what I mean). Certainly that little bit of press doesn’t justify the thousands of pounds that were probably spent. And yet a campaign such as this is often viewed as a success.

That’s not to say, though, that everything is bullshit. Some new bands are good. Some new bits of technology have the potential to change the world. Some new experiences created around digital music have the power to affect people in a way that nothing else can. But when you see something new, no matter how many people are talking about it, just take a second to stop and think: actually, is this thing good, or is it just pure, weapons grade, hype?

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